Ex-inmates find door to freedom closed
Hom was full of hope that once her prison term was over, she could immediately use her intensive training in Thai traditional massage to give her and her children a better life and future. But that was not to be.
Her hope was dashed because the law now prohibits ex-prisoners from working in traditional massage outlets and spas during their first year of freedom.
"I was devastated," said the mother of three.
The Business for Health Act, which took effect in 2016, prohibits former prisoners from working for Thai traditional massage and spa outlets during their first year of release.
Why? Because the sponsor of this law -- the Public Health Ministry -- believes those fresh out of the prison are still unhealthy and unworthy of trust. That after one year in the outside world, they will be thoroughly "clean".
This law also prohibits former inmates from setting up their own traditional massage centres. The law clearly states that business operators of massage centers and spas must be free of criminal records.
If this is not pure prejudice, then what is?
This misuse of law is sheer cruelty. The law should function as a tool to counter prejudice and help vulnerable groups. This law does the very opposite -- it has institutionalised social stigma against former prisoners to crush them even after their release.
The Act aims to regulate health services operators and prevent prostitution. But it hits female inmates hard.
At present, Thailand has the world's highest number of female inmates. Most are from the lowest rung of society without family and social support. Most of their crimes are drug-related. Many confessed to the crime to save their family members.
Many, too, lost their freedom because of outdated drug laws.
Thai traditional massage is probably the only one career for poor, uneducated women to earn a relatively decent income.
"The first year of release is crucial. If they cannot get a job, there is a good chance that the hardship will push them to break the law again," said Naowarat Thanasrisudarat, former director of Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institute and its famous massage centre.
Of course, the law proponents can argue that the law protects the customers. But is there any evidence to prove that masseuses who are former inmates are potential criminals?
If health concern is the issue, can health check-up -- now a standard requirement for most jobs -- be the answer? Why ban them from working altogether?
Under the Correction Department's rehabilitation policy, prisoners receive various vocational training as well as long-distance college education during their jail terms. For female inmates -- most of whom are poor with little formal education -- traditional massage training is the most popular, thanks to the boom in the Thai traditional massage and spa businesses.
Before 2016, female inmates with intensive training in Thai traditional massage were allowed to practise massage in centres set up by their prisons to serve the public and prepare them for the real work environment outside prison walls.
After her retirement, Ms Naowarat set up Thai traditional massage outlets in Chiang Mai to help former women inmates, knowing it is crucial for former inmates to get a job quickly after their release.
"Now each masseuse earns about 600-700 baht a day at least. They can give their children university education and buy their houses.
"On graduation day, mothers often bring their children to have a photo with me, to thank me for giving them a new chance in life. I'm happy and proud to be able to help them."
Hom, 42, wants to have that chance too. But Ms Naowarat had to say no. Under the new law, she will be punished too if she hires a masseuse during their first year of freedom.
Which raises the question -- why is the specified period for the ban set at one year?
What makes the lawmakers believe the former inmates are most dangerous during the first year of their release?
And why will they be safe after that?
There is no clear answer because prejudice shuns facts and evidence.
Speaking from experience, Ms Naowarat said there has been no single complaint of thefts in her six massage outlets which hire former female inmates.
"Instead, they always report immediately when customers forgot their belongings," she said.
It is a total let-down that the Department of Correction and the Ministry of Justice failed to counter this controversial law. In fact, by giving it the go-ahead, the Justice Ministry is simply admitting that its rehabilitation policy has failed.
There is only one way to make things right. Stop the ban.
In fact, job bans for all former inmates should be lifted, not only for female inmates in health-related services.
Prejudice against inmates is not gender specific. Many male inmates completed college degrees while serving jail terms. In law, for example. Yet, they cannot practice law because they need to have a licence. And to have a licence, they need to be free of criminal record. This rule similarly applies to jobs in state agencies and private companies.
When society tells you everyday that you are "bad", what choice do you have in the face of such hostility?
While top lawmakers' decision to pass the law seemingly serves to deepen social stigma against former inmates, it's heartening to know that one community in Ayutthaya is tackling the crux of the problem.
A group of community leaders in Hantra district is working with Ayutthaya Prison to undo the "once a criminal, forever a criminal" prejudice. They organise prison visits for Hantra residents so they can see how the inmates live. Listening to inmates talk about their lives also foster what society needs the most to tackle prejudice against inmates -- empathy.
Once the inmates who are residents of Hantra return to the community, at least they know where to turn to if they need help. If they are willing, they are invited to talk to Hantra youths to share their experiences and advice to avoid similar mistakes.
But community understanding can only go so far. Once former inmates seek jobs outside, they still face the brick wall of prejudice. When society forces them take a wrong turn again, society cannot deny it has become their accomplice.
The same can be said of the law that prevents female inmates from working in their first year of release.
Although Hom could not work as a masseuse for the time being, she said she owes it to Ms Naowarat for hiring her as a cleaner while waiting for her one-year ban to be over.
"Others are not as lucky as I am," she said. "If this ban continues, it will force more women to break the law again against their will."
Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.